PV’s Playhouse – What Makes a Good Deck Good?

It is no secret that I dislike most decks. What seems to be a secret, however, is that I actually have reasons for disliking them! Though every deck is a different deck, and some decks might be much better in a certain environment than another, at the end of the day there are many characteristic that one would associate with a good deck or with a bad deck. In this article, I will try to elaborate on what generally makes a deck attractive to me and on what makes me want to dismiss it immediately. Much of this is my personal opinion and some people will disagree, but that’s true for everything I write, and remember that, despite being an opinion, it is a very educated one, based on years of experience – I did not just randomly split characteristics between good or bad.

A very big plus for a deck is its ability to get free wins. Free wins are some games you just win out of nowhere because your opponent stumbled on mana or because you had a perfect hand. Jund, for example, had a ton of free wins because it ran a two mana 4/4 and sometimes that would be enough to beat people single handedly. Faeries had the same with [card]Bitterblossom[/card], and Caw-Blade the same with [card Stoneforge Mystic]Stoneforge[/card]. Some Jund decks didn’t play Leech, but I think that was a mistake because of those free wins – playing [card]Rampant Growth[/card] into [card]Bituminous Blast[/card] is not going to punish people for keeping one-landers and not getting there.

Much more important than having free wins, however, is not having free losses. There are many decks that will simply fold to anyone who leaves home with the mindset that they will beat you, and I don’t think a deck like that is usually optimal. Take, for example, the manaless dredge deck that won a SCG tournament a while ago:

[deck]4 Bloodghast
3 Gigapede
4 Golgari Grave-Troll
4 Golgari Thug
4 Ichorid
4 Narcomoeba
4 Nether Shadow
4 Phantasmagorian
4 Shambling Shell
4 Stinkweed Imp
4 Street Wraith
1 Woodfall Primus
4 Bridge from Below
1 Iona, Shield of Emeria
4 Cabal Therapy
4 Dread Return
3 Dakmor Salvage
1 Inkwell Leviathan
1 Sphinx of the Steel Wind
1 Ancestor’s Chosen
1 Blazing Archon
1 Gigapede
1 Stormtide Leviathan
1 Terastodon
4 Contagion
1 Akroma, Angel of Wrath
1 Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite
1 Iona, Shield of Emeria
1 Llawan, Cephalid Empress[/deck]

If this deck did not have 3 [card]Dakmor Salvage[/card]s, it would be perfect for the sentence “if they start with [card]Leyline of the Void[/card] you can literally never win”, though, realistically, you can’t – if a person did as much as adding four Leylines to their sideboard before they left for the tournament, and if they happen to draw them (very likely when they can mulligan to 3 and still beat you), then you’re pretty much drawing dead. They don’t have to do anything else, just add four Leylines to their decks. Now, do you think I spent 10 years playing Magic and reading articles to become good, that I traveled 30 hours from Brazil, to lose to any person who, by whatever reason, grabbed 4 Leylines before they left for the tournament?


Yes, yes, I know, he actually won the tournament – he took a gamble and it paid off. Such gambles are not for me – I would rather play a deck that has game even if people decide to beat me. Sure, it might be that no one packs Leyline, but would you rather leave the fate of your tournament at the hands of your opponents? Hope they make a mistake in sideboarding (or even that they do not make a mistake in sideboarding)? Not me, I’d rather have control about it myself.

Look at the decks I’ve played in the past PTs:

San Diego – Naya
San Juan – RUG
Amsterdam – Doran
Worlds – UB
Paris – Caw Blade
Nagoya – WW

Of course, the Manaless Dredge is the extreme example – rarely will a deck just beat you by having a card. Still, if you look at those decks, they’re all hard to hate if you compare them to the rest of the format. WW might look like an exception, since there were many “hateful” cards ([card Oxidda Scrapmelter]Scrapmelter[/card], [card]Corrosion[/card], [card]Slagstorm[/card], etc), but the deck couldn’t really reliably be hated out – we tried it in testing and we were still not beating it nearly as much as we would have liked.

Take, for example, Caw Blade. You want to beat Caw Blade, what do you do? There isn’t much you can do. You want to beat Caw Blade with all your heart, but you’re still not going to demolish it – you will get a small edge at most, through great sacrifice, it’s not like you can just add 4 sideboard cards. Now compare it to some other decks from that Pro Tour, Quest and Kuldotha Red – if your opponent wants to beat Kuldotha Red, do you think he won’t? He has so many powerful resources at his disposal, if he really wants to beat you, then he surely will. Do you want your PT result to be decided by your opponent’s degree of desire to beat Kuldotha Red?

This will also apply to decks that can’t beat a certain strategy – such as, say, a Martyr deck. A Martyr deck will have good game against many aggro decks but will flat out lose to some control and combo decks. If your opponent left his house thinking “I am going to play an infinite combo deck”, he has automatically already beaten you! Being 100% versus 60% of the decks and 0% against the other 40% is much worse than being 60% versus the entire field, since you need a lot better than 60% to do well in a tournament and with the second kind of deck your playskill will be much more important, as opposed to pairings – again, why leave your fate to something you have no control over when you have a choice?

In Legacy, this is especially important, since the format is so open and there are so many things you can just auto-lose to. Look at the Legacy decks I’ve played:

GP Columbus – Flash
07 Worlds – Cephalid
GP Chicago – Counterbalance
GP Madrid – Counterbalance
GP Columbus – Counterbalance
Worlds 09 teams – Counterbalance
GP Providence – Landstill

(PS. If I recall correctly, I’ve never lost a sanctioned match to Merfolk. Look at the decks I’ve played. How do people think Merfolk is good???)

Every one of those decks has resources – it is either very fast or has counterspells (all of them have four [card]Force of Will[/card]s). This comes from my horrible aversion to the feeling of being powerless. I never want to let my opponents do what they came to do – I want to be able to stop them. If I can kill them fast enough, I can stop them. If I can counter their spells, I can stop them. If I’m busy durdling with Green dudes, then I can’t do anything and that is something I wholeheartedly avoid.

Some decks cannot just be hated out (or simply won’t ever be hated out because it’s too costly to do so), but they’re still not good because they do not reward skill in any way. Again, I’ve spent A LOT of time with Magic – I’ve played a lot, I’ve read, talked and thought about it a lot. Why would I throw such an advantage out the window? If you’re reading this article, chances are you’re also better than the average competition and should not give up this advantage either. (If you’re not, go read my other articles! :D)

Take, for example, Burn. How do you outplay someone with Burn? Unless you trick them into playing untapped Ravnica lands, you can’t. This would not be that relevant if Burn was good enough so that you’d still have an edge without having a skill edge, but this is not the case, so it’s pretty safe to say I’ll not be playing burn anytime soon. Take Tomoharo Saito – he is an excellent player and he has done well with many decks he designed himself, but he has also played Burn in a big number of tournaments and as far as I know he has had no success with it. Why he would choose to throw away two great advantages (being a good player and refining a deck so well), I cannot say. The moment he added a couple creatures to his decks, to give him a little more play, he started doing much better.

There are exceptions, of course – sometimes the deck is just good enough that it’s worth it. It happened with Swans in Barcelona – the deck had 40 lands and every spell was either a Swans, an Assault or a way to get to them, so it’s not hard to see it was not the most skill intensive deck ever (which does not mean there is no skill involved, of course). At that tournament, I could have played Faeries, which is a deck I think I played better at the time than almost everyone else. Why did I play Swans then, and not Faeries? Because I thought the Swans win range was still higher. To exemplify:

Faeries is a very skill intensive deck, and also a good deck. I would expect the Faeries results to range from, say, 40 to 70, based on playskill. If I played it, we could say I’d get somewhere from 65 to 70. The Swans range, on the other hand, was something like 65-75 – despite skill playing a smaller role, it modified a much bigger number to begin with.

Two important things to note; first, “skill intensive” does not necessarily mean control deck. There are many control decks that are very easy to play, and many aggro decks that are hard, and it will generally change from matchup to matchup anyway. In general, the more interactive your deck is and the longer the game goes, the more it rewards skill, but that doesn’t have to be true. Second, complicated does not mean good – I’m not telling you to pick a deck that’s impossible to play just because you’re good, every deck has a limit no matter how well you play it and the limit is not always correlated with the complexity. The point is, before you play a deck that is going to obliterate your advantages, make sure that it is worth it. If you’re one of the best players, don’t play a deck that gives you no play unless the deck is so good that you don’t actually need any play.

A good deck will not only reward your skill, but it will create opportunities for the opponents to make mistakes. Take White Weenie, or the Swans deck – the opponents are not going to have a very big decision tree, and once they understand the fundamentals of the matchup, a game is not going to play very differently than any other. Now imagine you are playing Faeries – even a very good opponent will struggle because there is so much you could have, and each card you have requires a completely different play from him, let alone a bad player. This is a big advantage of Red aggressive decks over White aggressive decks – if you’re Red, you can win a game that you were going to lose on the back of their mistake – if they, for example, tap out when they shouldn’t or fetch when they shouldn’t. If you’re white, all your cards are on the table, so it’s way less likely for them to make a mistake that actively costs them the game, and much harder for you to punish them for it.

Another really important plus for a deck is that it has a good sideboard. Whenever I am deciding on a deck for a tournament, I try to envision a possible sideboard and it will really make or break a deck for me, since you play over half your matches post board. In general, control decks have a much better sideboard against aggro than the opposite AND they can afford to sideboard in a lot more cards, so this is a big plus for control decks. This is also a super advantage of multicolored decks, since the monocolored ones usually don’t have a lot of options. Let’s take a look at two random Sideboards from German nationals t8:


[draft]1 Black Sun’s Zenith
1 Despise
3 Disfigure
1 Dismember
2 Duress
4 Flashfreeze
2 Memoricide
1 Wurmcoil Engine[/draft]

Mono Red:

[draft]2 Act of Aggression
2 Combust
3 Dismember
3 Leyline of Punishment
3 Manic Vandal
2 Vulshok Refugee[/draft]

I mean… which one of those would you rather have? The first one has a bunch of specific, high impact cards, or cards that lower your curve and let you take out useless ones. The second sideboard is a bunch of cards that are either underpowered, the same kind of card you already have and don’t really want more, very small upgrades (since you can’t take out much) or cards you don’t even want to draw. I took this particular version of Mono Red, but it could be any version – with Mono Red, there is simply nowhere for you to go, since it’s both aggro and mono-colored, and the same happens with mono white (or Green or Black or that mono U Illusions, I’m sure). UB and UW, on the other hand, have great sideboards. When both decks are similar in power level, I will always choose the one with the best board (well, duh).

Another aspect that makes me like a deck is the fact that it doesn’t need to draw the right cards at the right moments. I absolutely hate decks that play 30 mana sources and don’t always have anything to do with them, which is most of the mana ramp or [card]Llanowar Elves[/card] decks. With those decks, you need to draw the mana early and the bombs late, and anything else just dooms you. Let’s take Valakut – you have say 14 threats and 46 mana. You need to draw a lot of accelerations and some threats. Just look at the Tim Landale vs Todd Anderson game in the finals of the TCG 75K – Landale had a very explosive start and hit 6 land plus Titan on turn four, but then the Titan was countered, one of the lands was killed and he drew nonland, nonland, nonland and died. Just like that, he could have gotten to 6 lands, played the Titan that he did play (and gotten it countered) and then drawn land, land land and died regardless, because the deck has 46 of them. With this kind of deck, you will get free losses simply due to their nature.

For that not to happen, you need either something to do with your lands, or lands that do things. [card]Mutavault[/card], for example, was one of the main reasons I liked Faeries so much, and it also had Commands and a lot of tricks you could use your mana for in the same turn. Caw-Blade not only had Edge and Colonnade but it also made great use of its mana with Equipments, [card Squadron Hawk]Hawks[/card] and card drawing. RUG had Ravine and Jaces. Legacy decks have [card Sensei’s Divining Top]Tops[/card], [card]Brainstorm[/card]s and Jaces. Decks like White Weenie, Mana Ramp, Mono White Control, those don’t have anything, and as such they are a lot more dependant on drawing the right card at the right time – even having something like Preordain goes a long way, because it makes sure you are going to hit your early land drops and your early plays while at the same time guaranteeing you’re going to hit your business spells in the late game. Basically, for the small price of one blue mana, it eliminates a big part of negative variance, and it’s certainly one of the factors that have made blue decks so dominant this season. Once you realize you can play more lands without flooding because of cards like that, then you also lose less due to not having enough mana, winning in both fronts.

The other option is having a deck that is so fast that you have no time to have mana problems, or a combo deck that does not mind if you draw too many lands because 3 specific cards plus 15 lands will kill them just the same – an aggro deck will very rarely accomplish that.

Lands are not the only problem – cards like [card]Memnite[/card] and [card]Ornithopter[/card], for example, are a big part of your nut draw in certain decks, but drawing them late is just horrible. Sure, they will give you free wins, but they will also give you free losses in the late game, unlike [card]Stoneforge Mystic[/card]. If a deck needs a critical amount of bad cards to work, then I don’t like it.

So, to sum it up:


Doesn’t get hated out easily
Doesn’t auto-lose to any deck
Has a good sideboard
Has potential for skill to make a difference
Has uses for its mana in the late game
Doesn’t need to play many situational cards


Uh, the opposite.

When you look at those criteria, it’s easy to see why I think White Weenie is a horrible deck. First, it cannot stop your opponent from doing anything they want to do, and it is not degenerate itself, so if they are doing something degenerate they’ll just beat you. Second, if they decide they want to beat you, they have a ton of reasonable options for that and you can’t do much about it. Third, you have nothing to do in the late game, no use for extra lands and you are forced to play suboptimal cards to fuel a nut draw. Fourth, you’re mono colored and aggressive, so your sideboard is bad. Fifth, it doesn’t offer you a lot of ways to outplay your opponent, since it’s basically a non interactive aggro deck. Compare it to, say, the UB deck we played at Worlds – it cannot be completely hated out even if the opponent wants to do it very badly, and it can stop them from doing whatever they want to do since it has discard and permission. It has uses for its mana and a powerful late game in the form of Tar Pits, Edges, Jaces and Preordains that dig to Titans. It is two colors and control, so the sideboard is excellent. And, finally, it interacts a lot more with your opponent and it has a lot of instants, so your playskill is going to matter more and they’re going to have more chances to mess up since the game is not going to be laid out for them. Caw Blade, Faeries, Counterbalance are all examples of decks that share those characteristics.

If that is the case, then why did we play WW in Nagoya? Because, for that tournament, every deck had those problems. You couldn’t actually hate it, since no card did that, and, true, you had bad late draws, but there was no good card drawing or selection, so that happened to all the decks – but much more so to the reactive decks because they had to play reactive cards and many more lands. Your sideboard was bad and it wasn’t very skill intensive, but even then it just felt better than everything else.

In Standard, this does not happen – you do not need to accept those flaws or settle for them. Caw Blade, though less powerful than it used to be, and with a lot less free wins, still retains most of those qualities. The [card]Birthing Pod[/card] decks, twin or no, have great late game and sideboard, are hard to hate out and are pilot-dependant. Valakut has the whole mana ramp problem, but it also has a lot of free wins to make up for that. UB is the same as caw, though more “powerful”, I guess, but with even less free wins. Mono Red is like Tempered Steel – a ton of free losses and a bad sideboard – but with a much better late game since topdecking Bolt sometimes kills them whereas topdecking [card]Ornithopter[/card] makes you want to drop and trade all your WW cards away.

If you have to play Standard right now, I can’t say there is a specific deck I recommend, though I do not recommend any of the aggro decks – they are fundamentally worse, and the environment is actually hostile for them (Reinforcements, etc), so that’s two negatives. All the other decks feel viable to me, and I would honestly play whatever you’re most comfortable with.

My nationals haven’t happened yet, and they won’t for quite a while, since some genius scheduled them on September 17, the exact same day as GP Montreal. As such, my next Standard tournament is GP Pittsburgh. I don’t know what I am going to play yet, but I rather like the RUG Pod decks. If I do not play Pod, then I will probably play Valakut because I do not like the Caw Blade versus Valakut match right now and I expect Valakut to be popular, though that in itself is a strike against Valakut since the mirror is dumb.

Before I leave today, my opinion on the PT changes – I like them. I did not like the Extended format (who did, really?), and I really, really like new formats, so I would have taken anything and Modern doesn’t seem particularly bad. I think they should have given a little bit more of a warning, but I think this is certainly better than the alternative for both Wizards and the majority of the players. If you are one of the few players who did get screwed by this (as in you had already playtested and can’t playtest anymore, or you have no friends), then there is only one thing I can say to you – hope we get paired round 1!

(Nah, seriously, I understand why some people would hate the fact that this was done with such a short notice, and I sympathize. In the end, you can’t please everyone, though an effort could have been made to displease less people by announcing this a bit sooner. I still maintain it’s much better than the alternative).

The ban list does seem kinda random, true, but, if it’s not going to be thoroughly tested, then I think this is the correct way of doing it, because overbanning is much better than underbanning (are those words?). If you ban something that wasn’t a problem, life just goes on as normal. If you do not ban something you should have, then you might compromise the entire Pro Tour. Besides, those bans will force some more diversity, which I think is great – if it wasn’t bad for business and for the people who buy cards, I would like them to ban cards every couple months to keep the formats changing.

Well, this is it! In a couple weeks, I’m going to a Mountain House (Mountain House is the new Beach House, really) with 13 other awesome players and hopefully I can make a good article out of that for next week.

I hope you’ve enjoyed it,



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